Record players or turntables from our recommended list all spin the vinyl with panache and quality, delivering a sound that is pure joy
Turntables can be fiddly to set up, tricky to operate and require ongoing maintenance. Vinyl records are expensive and can scratch and warp, rendering them unplayable. Meanwhile, music streaming services offer the effortless replay of millions of hi-res songs for a relatively modest monthly subscription. Why would anyone own a turntable? Because, in the world of music, there are few greater pleasures than the ritual of easing a favourite vinyl record from its sleeve, placing it on your turntable’s platter, resting the stylus on the spinning record and basking in the wonderful sound of analogue. To many, listening to their record collection is a near-religious experience, and we are willing members of the congregation.
Before buying a suitcase – aka portable – turntable, ask yourself, ‘how often will I take my turntable on holiday’? Whatever your answer, don’t buy the suitcase turntable. We’re not being snotty, but decent portable turntables are few and far between. Sure, they can look cute and offer the likes of Bluetooth, but the low-quality bundled stylus will likely quickly wear out and, worse, damage your records. And the built-in speakers not only break the rule of keeping your deck and turntables separate, but they also tend to disappoint when it comes to sound performance. You can do better!
The direct-drive turntable motor sits directly connected to the spindle underneath the platter. When the motor turns, the spindle turns, and the platter rotates. Unlike belt-drive decks, direct-drive models get up to playing speed almost instantaneously. This nippiness off the mark helps explain direct drive’s popularity with DJ deck design. The direct-drive design is also robust, with fewer moving parts on display. Direct drive does, though, bring the potential of unwanted vibration – the motor is directly attached to the platter; therefore, vibrations are, too.
On a belt-drive turntable, the designer positions the motor separate from the platter and uses a pulley system to turn your vinyl—the motor powers a pulley, which turns a rubber belt. The rubber belt also wraps around the platter, so as the pulley spins, the belt rotates the platter. A significant advantage here is the decoupling of the motor and platter, which significantly reduces the potential of unwanted vibration.
The platter is the spinning circular base on which you place the record. Platters come in several materials, including acrylic, aluminium and MDF. Look for a platter with a good weight and a feeling of solidity.
Turntables hate unwanted vibrations. Get your set up wrong, and you’ll hear the vibrations in the form of a muddied, frankly, rubbish sound. There is a vast selection of accessories and tweaks to help rid your deck of vibrations, but we’ll leave you to decide on that journey. Ensure that your turntable sits on something that doesn’t vibrate – be that from music or passing traffic – and keep your deck a reasonable distance from your loudspeakers. A good turntable will come with a good set-up guide, so follow the instructions – we know that it doesn’t feel right to read the manual but make an exception when it comes to viny – as they can make all the difference.
Also known as viny – to the hipsters anyway – records are pound-for-pound, the second most valuable currency on earth, second only to the Kuwaiti dinar.
Once made of shellac resin, today’s records comprise polyvinyl chloride – part crude oil, part chlorine. So, not the most sustainable material. Furthermore, a consequence of vinyl’s resurgence is a shortage of pressing plants, meaning fans can face long waits and high prices for favourite titles. For these reasons, it has never been more important to look after your vinyl collection. Store records upright, away from direct sunlight and in a cool (not cold) and dry environment.
The cartridge attaches to the turntable’s arm and comprises the stylus (or needle), cantilever and generating system. The stylus follows the record’s groove transmitting the groove’s undulations to the cantilever, and the generating system accepts these undulations from the cantilever, turning them into electrical replicas of the sound. This physical connection is the coal face of a vinyl system, and your cartridge must be in good working order. A cartridge upgrade is also one of the most effective and affordable system upgrades.
A moving magnet cartridge’s cantilever transmits vibrations directly into the cartridge’s magnet from the record groove. The moving magnet’s changing magnetic field induces magnetic flow, generating an electromotive (emf) force in the cartridge’s fixed coils. Voila, the record groove’s undulations are turned into a (small) electrical signal. Match your cartridge type with your amp’s phono stage.
The moving coil (MC) cartridge is the mid-engine sports car to the SUV-equivalent moving magnet (MM). Moving coil switches the position of the magnet and coils – the coils attach to the cantilever, and a fixed magnet sits inside the cartridge – and the result is a lighter, more agile design offering an even more accurate sound. Hence it is often the choice of the committed audiophile. The increased cost is the main drawback of the moving coil design – the engineering is delicate, and typically you can’t replace the stylus solely. Also, the moving coil’s (very) low output level means you’ll likely need a separate preamp to give it a boost.
A fully automatic turntable does the heavy lifting. Simply press a button, and the tonearm lifts and gently lowers itself on to the beginning of the record. When it finishes playing, the tonearm lifts back and returns to its rest. A semi-automatic deck won’t get you started, but the arm returns to its rest when the record ends. The main advantage of an automatic turntable is convenience. The trade-off versus a manual deck is that you’re paying for the extra mechanisms. So, in the main, a £300 manual turntable will sound better than a £300 automatic deck. But, possibly crucially, an automatic system puts an end to you being met the morning after the night before by your deck – and its cartridge on your valuable vinyl – still spinning merrily round like, well, like a record.